Soirée Absurde: The Best Language Class You Never Had

You don’t need to speak French to understand the triad of French plays being performed at the Seattle Center Armory by Le Théâtre Français de Seattle—they might actually make more sense if you don’t. “Une Soirée Absurde” features three plays in a foreign language that are about the foreign-ness of all language, so the less you understand the more you’ll get it—a catch-22 that is perfectly, Ionesco-ly, absurd.

Le Théâtre Français de Seattle was founded in January 2012 by WWU French professor Scott Taylor and dialect and voice coach Ellen Taft, both of whom have extensive theatrical backgrounds. While it may seem absurd to produce French theatre in an American city over 2,000 miles from the nearest French-speaking region, it’s actually good business when it comes to filling seats. Seattle’s rich network of franco-american and educational institutions guarantees a niche audience of American francophones and philes longing to hear the nasal purr of a “Tu vas bien,” and to purse their lips in a round and delicate “Oui.”

In the fall, Le TF had a sold-out run with their first show, Molière’s one-act Les Précieuses Ridicules which they performed once in the original French and once in English using Taylor’s own translation, titled Princess Butterflies (a more commonly used translation of the title is The Affected Young Ladies). Given the simple language and short length of their current production they decided to present it in French only, with English synopsis included in the program and translations available online.

Language—or, more specifically, the failure of language—is a key theme in theatre of the absurd, making it a natural fit for a company whose mission is as much educative as it is artistic.

Ionesco was inspired to write his first play, La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) while copying sentences from an English language primer. In “La Tragédie du langue” (The Tragedy of Language) Ionesco explains, “I learned not English but some astonishing truths: that, for example, there are seven days in a week…that the floor is down, the ceiling up, things I already knew…which seemed to me, suddenly, as stupefying as they were indisputably true.”

Ionesco came to the realization that through simple, objective statements language gives false order to the world’s chaos when in fact it is as senseless and unstable as the world it seeks to describe (consider the oft-cited phenomenon of a word losing its sense after too many repetitions).

Nowhere is this breakdown of language witnessed more frequently or meaningfully than in an elementary language classes. Taft, who used to teach intensive ESL courses from 9 in the morning until 10 at night, said that “By the end of the evening they could tell you anything and you’ve heard so many mistakes you lose connection with your own language. You don’t know what’s right anymore.”

The soirée began with a 7-minute filmed version of Les Salutations, one of Eugène Ionesco’s self-described “anit-plays” structured around repetition of the phrase “Comment allez-vous.” If you don’t remember the word “circumlocutoirement “from your high school French class don’t be alarmed—the responses are nearly all made-up adverbs created by adding “ement” (essentially the French equivalent to adding “ly” in English). The filmed close-ups of articulating mouths, and the actors’ wide-eyed over-annunciation and exaggeration recall the experience of watching an educational DVD from an elementary French class—one that got scratched over the years.

Language class continued in playwright and jazz musician Boris Vian’s Adam, Ève et le Troisième Sexe, set in the garden of Eden. Projections reminiscent of textbook clip-art aid in highlighting vocabulary words: “une panoplie de pompier,” “une tulipe,” “un adultère,” accompanied by images of a fireman’s uniform, a tulip, and Tiger Woods and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The boredom of existence gives rise to the fabricated meaning of a civilization when a run-in with a seductively androgynous serpent leads Adam and Eve to imagine a world with sex, vacuum cleaners, and rez-du-chaussées.

In Picnique en Campagne (Picnic on the Battlefield) Spanish-born Fernando Arrabal points out the absurdity of social convention when a young soldier’s proud parents (a formidable Dominique Grandmougin and Nathalie Tomazewski) arrive on the battlefield for a pleasant Sunday afternoon picnic. As enemy planes fly overhead, Tomazewski and Grandmougin happily toast their glasses under the thin refuge of a parasol in an act that is as revelatory as it is ridiculous. To the homesick Francophile the show is a celebration of two key tenants of French culture: that Sundays were invented for country promenades and that all good bottles of wine must be shared—even with captive enemy soldiers.  

Since reflecting on last Friday’s performance I’ve developed a theory that if you want to write an absurdist play all you have to do is write a realistic play in your non-native language and then have it translated back into English by an 11-year-old. During a post-graduate year spent teaching English in France I kept a notebook full of my students’ non-sequiters. A particular favorite is from one of my fifth graders who, during an oral exam, confidently proclaimed “I am from French, I am France.” I corrected him, but to this day I repeat his sentence in my head and think, “Oui, Hugo, tout à fait. Et moi, je suis l’Amérique.”

Une Soirée Absurde runs Friday April 26 at 8 p.m. and Saturday April 27 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. in Theatre 4 at Theatre Puget Sound on the fourth floor of the Seattle Center Armory (formerly known as the Center House).